I love my grandmother. A short-ish, easy going, humble little old lady of 80 years of age never ceases to place a smile on my face (genetics also didn’t hesitate to place her nose on my face too).
My grandmother usually resides in the tropics of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but for the past two months, she has been visiting us (and slowly getting used to the erratic weather here). It has become tradition that on every visit, she would spend one day in the kitchen wrapping her family famous ‘sticky rice’ (glutinous) dumplings, complete with bamboo leaves and all.
Hooray! This means at least a week’s supply of dinners, a taste of grandmummy’s love and most importantly, some quality time with my grandmother, learning what can basically be considered our traditional ‘family recipe’, before it phases out into a cultural extinction.
My grandmother had begun wrapping the first batch of dumplings bright and early at 8 am this morning. The large pot for cooking these gems in was up and at a rolling boil by 9 am, and the house was filled with its whistles as all of us patiently waited for the dumplings to cook.
Glutinous rice dumplings, also known as ‘sticky rice’ dumplings, or 粽子 (in mandarin, pronounced Zong Zi), are pretty much what they are- a mound of glutinous rice stuffed with hearty fillings such as savoury chestnuts, pork, mushrooms and wrapped in a fragrant bamboo leaf. They are usually eaten around the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节） period, around the month June in the Gregorian calendar (in May for all you Lunar date-ers out there!).
Today, my grandmother chose her classic dumpling combo- dried shrimps with shiitake mushrooms and five layered pork belly braised with chestnuts in oyster sauce (I know it’s not June, but time does not restrict an opportunity to glutinous rice dumplings. That not how it roll.)
I think we underestimate the amount of work, preparation and time that really goes into wrapping these dumplings, a large portion of it going to re-hydration of many components of the dumpling itself- soaking the bamboo leaves, raw glutinous rice, dried shrimps, and the dried shiitake. Of course, cooking the fillings also take time… all the effort and hard work that my grandmother put in behind the scenes leading up to today, before we arrive to her station in the kitchen and see everything neatly segregated and placed in separate bowls, ready for wrapping.
My grandmother would always reminisce at the old days- raising a family of 6 children in the 1960s in Malaysia was no walk in the park.
“When a family has no money, one just needs to learn how to do it yourself,” (translated from Cantonese) she would say.
Even though now we have money, and inevitably, machinery that can easily manufacture these dumplings, there is nothing better than having a real-life teacher at your dispense, showing you the genuine method in wrapping these dumplings.
“Everyone’s too busy in this day and age to learn this type of old fashioned thing,” mused by grandmother, as she carefully inspected another bamboo leaves for holes. She was right! Why let our traditional recipe cease here?
Grasping the leaf between her forefinger and thumb, my grandmother looked at me expectantly, and before I knew what I was doing, I found myself with a bamboo leaf in my hand, perched onto a stool next to the master herself.
A large part of the flavour in these dumplings are in the bamboo leaves. Back in the old days, they’d come fresh from the bamboo plant (probably ones that grew in your backyard), but unless you live in China next to a panda farm or something now, I think your local Asian grocery store should sell them in convenient (and very generous) packs for just a little over 5 dollars.
The dried bamboo leaves were soaked 3 times for 3-4 hours each time, or until the water it soaks in remains clear. On its first soak, the bamboo leaves will leave the water a murky, dirty yellow colour, and one may find sediments or soil. Keep washing and soaking it until it is clean.
Not forgetting the real stars of the show- the dumpling fillers.
Now my grandmother cooks by feel- meaning to say that she follows no recipe, and virtually eyeballs everything, so I do apologise that this cannot be an exact, detailed tutorial on cooking the ingredients. I can only piece together snippets of instructions given to me by grandma in broken, lay-man’s Cantonese (which is what I grew up speaking, being raised by my beloved grandmother).
As my grandmother fiddles with the half completed dumpling in her hand, she tells me about the first filler (and my personal favourite), the stir fried dried shrimp and shiitake.
The dried shrimp and shiitake mushrooms are first soaked in plain water overnight, then stir fried with shallots, garlic and sauces.
First start with some canola oil in the pan. Add 4-5 small shallot heads (for a large-ish bowl of shrimp and about 250-300g of mushrooms) and 1 large clove of garlic, frying them in the oil until your kitchen is redolent of the delicious fragrance.
Add in the rehydrated ingredients and toss to cook. Add in 1-2 tablespoons of oyster sauce, a little bit of brown sugar (white works fine too), and a little splash of black (dark) soya sauce for that rustic, dark colour.
The second dumpling filler is no other than braised 5 layer pork belly with chestnuts.
Again, the meat and chestnuts are braised in dark soya sauce and oyster sauce (green onion and/or ginger may be added according to liking). Place the meat in a pot with the chestnuts and sauces and braise on low heat for a little over an hour (I think there was close to 1 kilogram of pork belly here), or until the protein is tender and chestnuts are able to be split in half with a poke, but still holds its shape.
Grandma’s tip: If braising this as a dish to go with rice (instead of as a dumpling filler), leave the pot boiling for about 1.5-2 hours, so the chestnuts cook fully through.
And of course, not forgetting the binder of the entire delicacy- the glutinous rice.
The raw rice is soaked in water for a couple of hours, before being tossed with what my gran calls the ‘shallot oil’, which is literally her frying some spare shallots in cooking oil and then pouring the concoction into the rice. This allows the dumpling to slide smoothly off its outer covering after its cooked (saves me from scraping remnants of rice off the leaf with my teeth like an animal really).
Grandma’s tip #2: If you are lazy to fry up some shallot oil, or run out of fresh shallots to do so, one can always use the packaged pre-fried shallots that can be bought at your local Asian grocery. Just toss some in the soaked rice and you should be good to go.
As I watch my grandmother wrap the dumplings, I notice her hands, I mean properly notice her hands for the first time. My grandmother’s hands appear weathered, freckled from raising a family of 6, from cooking and cleaning over the years. Her hands appear seasoned from changing the diapers of her 5 grandchildren, from spanking us when we were being mischievous, and from taking tender, loving care of us.
Despite all this however, her hands do not lack vigour. They are still as strong, agile and move with dexterity as she swiftly works her magic, producing a perfectly firm, triangular glutinous rice dumpling, tightly secured with a thin little ruffian string.
Her firm grip holds my clumsy, stiff fingers into a curved position as she teaches me her technique to dumpling wrapping- “you cannot hold the dumpling too tight, or it won’t hold its shape, the leaf will crack.”
Now that was ironic, yet my grandmother had a point, very much literally and metaphorically.
“if you keep gripping the dumpling too tight and being afraid that it’ll fall over and injure itself, then it’ll split, and cannot hold together when it’s being cooked in the pot,” my grandmother elaborated. (translated quite literally from Cantonese)
Very true hey, sometimes, we just need to trust that everything will hold together and let go. For me, it translates into letting go of many worries and stresses and just trusting God to fight my battles for me. Holding on too tightly injures no one but yourself- like my grandmother explained, it’ll cause brittle cracks and holes in your leaf, and therefore cause a leaky, insecure disaster.
Letting go is the only way to move forward, to learn from past mistakes, to be forgiven and to have the space to repent, so that one may survive and thrive in further tribulations (like those dumplings surviving 3 hours boiling in a 100 degree pot of water without coming loose and spewing its contents everywhere).
Holding the cusp of the dumpling in place, it is then filled in layers; first with a little bit of rice, then filling #1, filling #2, and then more rice to cover, before reaching the most technical part- sealing the dumpling.
I must admit, I thought I was doing fine, until I got to the last step of the wrapping process, which is sealing the dumplings and then tying everything together with the ruffian string.
Easier than it looks really, but it involves holding everything together, understanding the contours and shape of your dumpling, before folding the chock-filled cusp of the dumpling over and onto the rest of the leaf.
Make sure that the corners are folded, and the part of the leaf that makes the corners of the dumpling are pinched outwards. This ensures that the innards of the dumpling remain as innards during the long cooking process.
Somehow or rather, she manages to wrap a killer dumpling, and it is all tied and held solely together by a flimsy piece of ruffian string. The kitchen is filled with chit chat, as my grandmother happily speaks to us all, and instructs her friend next to her. Her hands move as if they had a mind of their own- never missing a step, never stumbling.
As my grandmother completes roughly 8 dumplings, stringed together in a cluster, my aunt comes around with a plastic bowl, transferring the bunch from my grandmother’s station to the stove, submerging it into a deep pot of boiling hot salted water, where it’ll cook for the next 3 hours.
Grandma’s tip #3: Add a little bit of chicken powder and salt to the water for boiling the dumplings in- chicken powder just brings out that little extra flavour.
I love my grandmother. She is a short-ish, easy going, humble lady, standing strong at 80 years young. She is always happy, and sees the glass half full, even when there’s water spilled all over the kitchen top. Her patience, love and sacrifice in being the pillar- the mother of the family inspires me, and I thank God for her.